- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

A public charter school dedicated to teaching Hispanic youngsters in the District ran into a familiar roadblock as it prepared to open this year — it had no roof over its head.
Things were going smoothly for the Tri Community Public Charter School, with its attractive curriculum aimed at 400 Hispanic youngsters, until December, when the school's chairman, Elizabeth Smith, went shopping for a school building.
After five months of looking, she could not find anything that was safe and that wouldn't cost a fortune to repair. The building she did finally settle on, in the Petworth area of Northwest, was in terrible shape and in no state to move into by August, when schools would open.
"There was asbestos all over the place," she said. "The building had been used by a government agency, and it needed a lot of work," she said.
Now, she has to wait another year to open.
Tri Community's story is not new. It has been repeated year after year, ever since charter schools first opened in the District in 1996, with at least one school every year forced to delay opening because of space problems.
Some charter school advocates say the problem is aggravated because the city is ignoring its own law, which gives charter schools first crack at buying or leasing the hundreds of surplus buildings it controls. Instead, the city gives preference to businesses and builders looking to construct luxury condos. A number of buildings are also occupied free of charge by government agencies.
Usable, safe buildings are "a roadblock in the path of charter schools," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice for Public Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group in the city. "There is no commitment on part of the city to find school buildings" for charter schools, he said.
He said parents have been "lining up" to enroll their children in charter schools, which are estimated to grow to 15 percent of the size of public schools this year, up from 13 percent last year.His group says it received 1,500 calls from parents last fall, frustrated because charter schools they wanted to send their children to were already full.
With the opening of four charter schools this fall, there were expected to be 37 charter schools on 42 sites in the city, with total enrollment between 11,000 and 12,000, up from 9,500 in the 2000-2001 academic year. Last week, however, the public schools' Board of Education began the process of revoking the charters to three schools, in a setback to the charter schools movement. The three schools are appealing charges of mismanagement, saying some of the problems they had last year were exaggerated or have been fixed.
Several of the city's charter schools are currently in temporary, make-do locations and will need to move into larger, permanent buildings soon because they add a higher grade level every year.
Nelson Smith, director of the Public Charter School Board, says the difficulty in finding permanent quarters can discourage potential applicants looking to open charter schools in the District. "If you look at the way people make decisions, that is one of the things they might think of," he said.
The board received just five applications from charter schools for the 2001-2002 school year, compared with 12 applications submitted last year. Mr. Smith said that the number of applications fluctuates from year after year, but that the annual, embarrassing hunt for good buildings could discourage enough would-be applicants.
Charter schools have been creative in finding buildings, he said. Many convert church basements into cheerful classroom spaces. One school, the Southeast Academy for Scholastic Excellence, which opened last year, gutted the inside of a grocery store and remodeled the space into classrooms, he said.
The city controls upwards of 300 surplus properties, many of which may be suitable for charter school use, said Malcolm Peabody, president of the D.C. Public Charter School Coalition, in a statement made before the D.C. Council's Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation in December.
Mikki Seligman, a senior policy adviser on education in the mayor's office, said the mayor has had to "deal with broader city issues," especially in a situation where "space is tight and there are a number of demands from other city agencies."
She said the District, unlike most other areas with charter schools, helped the schools find properties. Every year, the city makes some school buildings available exclusively for charter schools to bid on, she said.
Fourteen of the 38 empty schools the mayor controls have been rented or sold to charter schools, she said. Also, the mayor is trying to get public and charter schools — which don't get along all that well — to share space. "The charter schools and public schools have been at loggerheads," she said. But with mayor acting as a peacemaker, "we could look at the possibility of co-locations," she said.
"The mayor has been a great supporter of charter schools," said Gregory McCarthy, director of policy with the mayor's office. He said the mayor's office had increased funding for charter schools by as much as four times, and had been working with charter schools on a citywide management plan.
But the woes continue for the schools. Of the four charter schools that are opening this year, three are located in temporary spaces, including KIPP D.C./K.E.Y. Academy, which opened in a church on Minnesota Avenue in Southeast.
Principal Susan Schaeffler said the KIPP school, which opened with 80 students in the fifth grade, would have to move to a permanent location by the fall of 2002 when it will have to add a grade as this year's fifth-graders become sixth-graders. "Our clock is ticking," she said.
Finding facilities, she said, had been one of the biggest problems she confronted while setting up her school. And the frustration continued, she said, because she's had to raise "millions of dollars" to pay for a permanent building by next year.
"I have to divert funds I would spend on expanding programs for the school to [the building fund]," she said. The District allocates charter schools $1,000 per student for facilities, but Ms. Schaeffler said it is not enough.
Sharing space with a public school would be an ideal solution for the privately operated charter schools — if they could work out their differences with public school officials, with whom they compete for students.
"I would love to be in an elementary school which would feed into our school," Ms. Schaeffler said.
Public school buildings with empty classrooms and plenty of unused space would be perfect, charter school supporters say, because the ready-made infrastructure of classrooms would reduce renovation costs. Mr. Cane said the city's public school system has millions of square feet of unused space that charter schools could rent.
According to figures from the District's public schools system, most public schools in the city are underutilized. For example, Lincoln Middle School on 16th Street used less than a third of its building space in the 1999-2000 school year, as did Kramer Middle School on Q Street in Southeast.
Mr. Cane suggests building two or more charter schools on land owned by large public schools. "Several schools have 10 to 15 acres of land. They could lease two or three acres to charter schools," he said. "It's time for the city to get creative."
But public schools officials say they have their own very good reasons not to lease out space to charter schools. According to Steven Seleznow, chief of staff of the D.C. Public Schools, schools will need their excess space to start early childhood programs that are now being planned, and to bring special education students back from nonpublic schools, to cut down on expenses.
"We need to see what the needs of DCPS are. We wouldn't want to bring in a charter for a year or two and then ask them to move out because we need the space for our special ed students," he said.
The school system was also working with the city government on the co-location of health centers, family services, and other programs in school buildings, all of which would take up space, he said.
Charter school advocates say schools Superintendent Paul Vance has, however, expressed a willingness to work with charter schools. "Paul Vance has a refreshing attitude about competition," Mr. Smith said.
City residents think space sharing makes sense. When the Thurgood Marshall Academy opened in a church on Alabama Avenue in Southeast, people in the neighborhood knew it would mean they would have an even tougher time finding a place to park on the street near their homes, because the church does not have a parking lot where school employees can park.
Virginia Major, ANC commissioner for the area, wrote to Mr. Vance suggesting the charter school be allowed to locate inside Ballou High School, which is a block away on Fourth Street.

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